Neologism

I like a good neologism as much as the next guy. Oxford English Dictionaries recently released a covey of new words added to the famed lexicon. Most of them, it seemed to me, had to do with dangers of technology, like “drunk text” and such fare. Still, increasing vocabulary is one of those rare joys in life that is continues to be free, so I indulge. A friend sent me a BBC story about another new word: champing. Well, my spell-check recognizes that one so maybe it’s not new. In any case, this champing is derived from two words “church” and “camping.” Some locations with medieval churches—which kind of rules out anything on these shores—are now opening them up as camping spots, thus church-camping. The article asks what it’s like to stay overnight in such a place.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, medieval churches were hard to find, but I spent more than one night sleeping in sacred spaces. It’s an uncanny experience. In what may have been more innocent days, our United Methodist Church allowed youth group sleepovers, as long as there were counselors present. (Ever naive, I only learned later that there were ways around such obvious strictures.) On a Friday night, then, we could occasionally gather with our sleeping bags and slumber under the sanctuary. For theological reasons we couldn’t sleep in the sanctuary itself (although that couldn’t be prevented on the occasional very long sermon) but we could go in. Churches are scary at night with the lights out. We may give lip service to holy ground, but large, cavernous spaces suggest so much by absence and implication that it would take a stout soul indeed to sleep there.

Looks okay from the outside.

Sleeping in sanctuaries in ancient times was an acceptable practice. In fact, there’s a name for doing so: incubation rituals. A person who slept in a sacred place believed any dreams had that night were a message from God. Knowing the dreams I tend to have, I do wonder. Once, at the United Methodist camp called Jumonville—famous for its large white, 60-foot, metal cross visible in three states—we counselors (still naive) had our charges sleep outdoors at the foot of the sigil on the bare top of the mountain. In the morning my champers gleefully informed me that I’d been praying in my sleep. “You kept saying ‘Amen. Amen,’” they told me. Alas, I don’t remember the dreams of that night. Perhaps when I find a medieval church on my journeys I’ll be brave enough to try an incubation ritual once again. This time I’ll take a tape recorder.

Daily Bread Plus

I have a confession to make. I’m not a foodie. These days such an admission is tantamount to a venial sin, but the fact is I’m one of those who eats to live, not lives to eat. Still, like many people I’m concerned about whence my food comes. I can’t grow my own and just about all of it comes wrapped in plastic. Thus I found a BBC article my wife sent me to be of great interest: “An uncanny mixture: God, alcohol and even cannabis” by Kait Bolongaro. Focusing on monasteries and their brewing and distilling traditions, Bolongaro uses the foodie angle well. People want to know where their grub comes from, and the current interest in knowing the location of the source plays well into this. European monasteries have long been known for their production of alcohol. Even Jesus drank wine.

I’m no connoisseur of spiritous liquors, but the story is quite interesting. Many people don’t realize that monastic orders, in addition to praying and not having sex, also support themselves through industry. Many make goods to sell. Those in this article make booze. As Bolongaro points out, the fermentation and distillation process is an exacting one. In fact, it is a science. In the case of Chartreuse only three monks know the secret formula. They control the temperatures and conditions remotely, by computer. And I thought Bible Gateway was the only place the religious spent their time.

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Science and religion actually have a very long history of cooperation. Gregor Mendel, whose work gave Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection its actual mechanism, was a monk. Other religious have been close observers of nature and processes. There is no commandment against good beer, as many Teutonic brothers would no doubt point out. But to get it right you have to know your chemistry. As the article says, some things can’t be rushed and monastic life lends itself to such slow processes. The rest of us in our secular pursuits rush through life far too fast for religion or science. Contemplation requires “down time.” Time off the clock. The kind of time, we’re told, that simply doesn’t exist any more. The story, after all, appears in BBC Business. I’m no foodie, but I have to confess that the cheese and pretzels purchased from the Amish in Lancaster do tend to taste better than those that come wrapped in plastic. There may be a religion to science after all.

The Religion Code

People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.

One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.

Photo credit: Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?

Being Humanity

KindnessOfStrangersWhat do you want to be when you grow up? The question kept recurring as I read The Kindness of Strangers. The name Kate Adie may be more familiar to readers from the UK than to those from the US. While spending three years and a bit in Scotland, my wife and I grew accustomed to hearing her name as a reporter with the BBC. I’ve just finished reading her memoir and it brought to mind several points that hit quite close to home. Apart from being engagingly written, her biographical essays highlight the difficulties women still face in much of the world. As a journalist, Adie traveled to many vexed locations where some expressed surprise that a woman would have such freedom as to run around with men, investigating, reporting, and being seen by many, many viewers. Meanwhile, those she sojourned among had to deal with oppressive regimes, low standards of social justice, and, not infrequently, the fear of rape. It is a poignant and at times maddening account. Men the world over seem to share a horrid, deeply ingrained and reinforced concept that women are somehow there to serve them. Here we are in the twenty-first century and we’re still struggling with basic biology.

If I might tear myself away from that particular observation for a moment, I also found Adie’s firsthand accounts of the atrocities she witnessed deeply troubling. In this day of Holocaust awareness and the belief in human dignity, it is distressing to see how cheap life is under many governments in the world. How humans can be so inhumane boggles the mind of those with any sense that we’ve somehow evolved. Often the hatred is based in differing religious outlooks, but often religion is only an excuse. The offending religions that are touted almost all teach the descent treatment of your fellow human beings. Sadly, nothing appears to have been learned from the all-too-intentional violence of the past century. The real issue, reading between the lines, is power, not faith. It is easy to have a scapegoat, and some analysts (not Adie, I would emphasize) like to suggest a simple solution by placing their hands on the head of religion and confessing the deadly sin of being human over it.

The book, I should add, is not all gloom. Adie is witty, sophisticated, and a charming writer. One of the positive takeaways I had from her life story is that the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is all wrong. Adie never wanted to be a journalist, but through a series of circumstances eventually found herself one. A much decorated and honored one, no less. This is a lesson for our time. The old stabilities of choosing a career and staying with it seem to have eroded from beneath us. It is increasingly difficult to plan ahead for an uncertain future. Adie is a fine example of how to adapt along the way. More than that—and men pay attention here—she’s an exceptional example of what it means to be human. This is what we should all strive to be when we grow up.

Under the Weather

A friend, knowing my penchant to watch the skies, sent me a story about the British and the weather. The story by Alastair Sooke on the BBC’s cultural page is discussing Alexandra Harris’s book Weatherland. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book (yet) but the report of it appeals to someone who’s written a book on the weather, but for a much older timeframe. According to Harris, according to Sooke, the British are rumored to be obsessed with the weather. While living in the United Kingdom, my wife and I observed this. It is not merely casual conversation when someone discusses the weather. It is a serious topic. For a nation so accustomed to rain and gloomy skies, the weather has a religious import. It rarely goes without comment. I suppose that’s the point I was trying to make in my book. The weather is important. Vital, in fact, to human survival.

What really caught my attention here, however, was Harris’s observation that weather is used to characterize mood. Sooke mentions ice and snow and melancholy. The image is vivid: early Anglo-Saxons turing a wary eye to a winter sky with its low clouds and preternatural chill. It is so universal, it seems, not to require comment. Yet at the same time, weather can be a great trickster. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the image of the Arctic north filled him with an inexplicable joy. Winter can be fickle that way. In the world of the Psalmists, rain was a blessing and a weapon. How you look at it depends, well, on your mood.

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The British may take their weather more seriously, on a day-to-day basis, than those of us across the Atlantic. We tend to treat the topic casually. In reality, it is just as serious here. Drought, which has gripped the western half of the country for about half a century now, is a serious concern. Winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes. A lightning storm can still be a theophany. (One awoke me in the middle of the night, just hours ago.) Weather impacts our bodies as well as our moods. It is all-pervasive, but we generally don’t like to articulate it. I suspect our understanding of the weather says more about us than we’re willing to admit. Our British colleagues, however, are less squeamish about the topic than we tend to be. There’s more to the sky than it might appear.

Henging Our Bets

With the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, the history of civilization has received an unexpected prologue. In the view of the archaeologists involved in the excavation, the site can only be religious in nature, indicating that the earliest communal efforts of humans were not for mutual protection or for the benefits of growing crops, but for worship. In an era of angry atheists and nones, this isn’t really welcome news. Many people are ready to flush religion once and for all, claiming that it inspires only terrorists and fanatics to more and more extreme deeds. Well, I suppose Göbekli Tepe can be considered a form of extremism. Massive amounts of energy were required for the building of the site. And it was buried, intentionally, when the builders were finished with it. The news of a new component to the much later Stonehenge complex, the Durrington Walls, has recently been presented. Stonehenge, in England rather than in Turkey, and much closer in time to us than Göbekli Tepe, is a site that has touched the human imagination in a profound way. Still primitive at the time of its construction, Britain was a land already brimming with religious monuments. The new discoveries make it even more intriguing.

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Stonehenge is only a small part of what is now being called the Durrington Walls super-henge. Those who visit Salisbury Plain know that Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow are both impressive in their own right, and not far from the more famous sarsen stones that appear on everything from coffee mugs to tee-shirts and in movies and television shows of all genres. This part of prehistoric England seems to have been a sacred site many hectares in extent, with various “temples” and monuments dedicated to a religion we simply don’t understand. What is clear is that massive human energies were put into the building, expanding, upkeep, and functioning of this site. People have a deep, and very passionate urge to answer the religious longing that even sophisticated engineering can’t placate.

It could be argued, of course, that we’ve outgrown our childhood need for parents in the sky. Science and rational thought have shown us the way forward and although ancient monuments might be a fun diversion, they really mean nothing. I would disagree. Places like the Durrington Walls super-henge indicate what it is to be human. Clearly, given that even Stonehenge fell into disrepair and lay neglected for centuries, it was not a continuity that stretches, uninterrupted to today. Nevertheless, the effort expended to fill a void we feel should tell us something about what being conscious creatures is all about. Life doesn’t always make sense. The rational cannot explain everything. It would be naive to try to make Stonehenge reveal its secrets, but even standing at a distance (which is the only way you can gain admission any more) you have the sense that you are among those who knew what the human spirit required. Even if pagan and illiterate, they have spoken to us through the ages and we can only continue to wonder at what we’ve lost.

Excavating Religion

Jamestown, Virginia has the distinction of being the first British American colony to have survived. I’ve only been to Jamestown once, and that was about two or three years before the site was scheduled to celebrate its four-hundredth anniversary. William Shakespeare was still alive back in the home country. The King James Bible was not yet available. It was a gray day when we drove to the site and there were no other people around. Without a guide there was not much really to see—just a sense of being in touch with history by standing where the first English would eventually remake the land in their own image. Even the pilgrims tried to reach Virginia, but missed and landed in Massachusetts instead. Jamestown, however, lays a claim no other site can make.

A recent BBC article describes four graves lately found at the site. Located in the church, those buried were men of status. One of them was Reverend Robert Hunt, a clergyman of the Church of England and the first Anglican minister in North America. Interestingly, the BBC story points out, the Church of England was only half a century old at the time. Having spent many years among the Episcopalians at Nashotah House, I learned a great deal of the church’s history. The fact that the Episcopalians made it to America so shortly after their establishment is something I never heard emphasized. Concerned that the Catholic Church, under Spain, was collecting so much territory, the C of E wanted to stake a claim in the New World early on. Partially because of their persistence, we speak English even today. Church and empire were hand-in-glove in those days, and both the church in Spain and in England were state sponsored. Having God on your side can be pretty handy when you want to claim something that really doesn’t belong to you.

The reverend was buried west, facing the people he served, and, according to the article, this helped initially identify him as clergy. The church, in the service of the government, supported the conquest of new lands. The implicit belief that God was on the side of the strong has never really gone away. Mega-churches measure their spiritual assets in terms of fiscal influence. There are those today who believe that the Almighty wants the righteous to be rich, of course, at the cost of the wicked. Jamestown may have, at least partially, set the tone for a new nation that wanted to take more land than it needed. Land that others had occupied, and indeed, still lived upon. Only with the backing of a deity could such claims be made. The biggest god, after all, wins the day. Jamestown tells us more than we might suppose about what we’ve become as a nation. The early years are often the most formative of all.

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Social Media and Persia

A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?

Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.

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I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.

Forbidden Words

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In keeping with the spirit of freedom, just before July 4 the BBC broke the story of Iceland’s blasphemy laws having been struck down. Although the state Church of Iceland (Lutheran by denomination) supported the move, other churches have been grumbling. It’s an odd notion, that blasphemy should be illegal. Part of the oddity revolves around disagreement of what blasphemy is. Even if taking the name of God in vain is used to define it, several questions remain. Which name of God? Certainly “God” is not a name, but a title. Is taking the title of God in vain blasphemy? What does it mean to take a name in vain? If you don’t mean it? I’ve surely heard many invoking the divine in curses that were most certainly sincere. Were they blaspheming? Does blasphemy really mean failing to believe in God? And, pertinent to Iceland, which god is protected under such laws?

Religious pluralism is the clearest threat to those supporting blasphemy laws. Underlying to very proposition is the idea that there is only one true God and that is the God of Christianity. Judaism might be tacked on there, as might a reluctant Islam, but the notion of blasphemy does not seem to bother the deities of other cultures as much. Honoring and respecting belief in deities is fine and good. In fact, it is the decorous way to behave. Still, privileging one deity as the “true god” protected by state statutes is to bring politics into theology. Since when have elected officials really ever understood what hoi polloi believe? In Iceland the old Norse gods have recently come back into favor. Should they be respected to? Why not as much as the Christian God?

It is perhaps ironic that the Pirate Party put forward the successful bid to strike down the law on blasphemy. According to the BBC, the Pirate Party began in Sweden and has now established itself in 60 countries. Since it’s fight for accountability and transparency in government, it’s sure to have a hard time in the United States where bullies can run for President unashamed. What is clear is that although governments make and enforce laws, the will of the people seldom makes itself heard. We may have won some victories in recent days, but there are many entrenched ideas that benefit those in power and not their underlings. Sounds like the Pirate Party may become the Democratic Party of tomorrow. If it does, however, when it loses sight of the ideals that launched it, we may need a new party to board the ship and ask for the people to be heard. Politely, and without swearing, of course.

The Last Word

The end of the world, it seems, never goes out of fashion. My wife shared a story on the BBC about CNN (such self-referential media hype may be a sign that society is collapsing already) having a video ready to release for the apocalypse. In a bit of end-of-time sangfroid, it is rumored, CNN’s Ted Turner ordered a last-second video to be made so that loyal CNN viewers would be ushered out with his version of the last word. The media, of course, is a powerful segment of society. Occasionally schools and businesses are shut down due to their meteorological predictions. The media tells us who the experts are, and why we should listen to them. The media provides us with some of the only fact-checked material from far-flung ends of the globe—or even outer space—to which we, the people, would not normally have access. The media, in other words, determines reality.

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Meanwhile I wonder, as I often do, what gives those who own media corporations the right to determine reality for the rest of us. For example, if the rumor of Turner’s video is true, what would give the rich and powerful the right to determine what flashes before our eyes as the world winks out of existence? The apocalypse, after all, is a religious concept. Although largely developed from biblical scripts, other religions do occasionally have their end-of-the-world myths, just like most religions have beginning-of-the-world myths. If you have billions of dollars, does that mean you have the right to determine end-times viewing? When money determines the truth, the world has already ended.

Nevertheless, the idea lives on. We are constantly reminded that one or another religious sect has declared that the end is nigh. We’ve heard it so often that we’ve ceased to pay attention. In a world where the media has largely dismissed the rest of the Bible (except when blockbuster movies come out featuring a biblical story) why does Revelation still hold such currency? After all, the apocalypse takes its very name from the final book of the Christian Bible, and without Revelation we might be none-the-wiser about the looming end of all things. Revelation was very much a product of its time. Despite the progress of science and technology that gave us the media corporations we blandly recognize today, we still harbor doubts deep down about the longevity of it all. Even those who write the news look to other media giants to get some hints of the truth. Ironically, they don’t seem to want to ask scholars about it. After all, sensationalism is news. At the end of the world, we really don’t care what scholars have to say, as long as we’re entertained.

Weather for the Birds

As Christmas nears so does a warm front, dashing hopes of a white Christmas in New Jersey. Well, at least there are no tornadoes coming. The weather, as my readers know, has long been perceived as a divine barometer. In a time when patience is wearing thin with religion, and weary headlines ask if it will ever finally disappear, our animal cousins seem, as usual, to pick up on clues more readily than we. An article on the BBC science page describes how a set of tagged golden-winged warblers vacated their nest a day before a tornado struck. Scientists suspect that the birds—and likely other species of birds as well—picked up the infrasound of the tornadoes that is well below human hearing range. Sensing the danger, they flew nearly a thousand miles, stopping just south of the storm’s track.

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Of course, tornadoes don’t last an entire day. If the birds fled that long in advance, they couldn’t, I suspect, have heard a tornado that hadn’t formed yet. Since I’m no scientist, I’m not really qualified to offer an explanation, but I do wonder if such behavior isn’t related to consciousness. Several books that I’ve read recently have explored the concept of animal consciousness, and although we are reluctant to admit them to the realm of the self-aware, I wonder how long we can deny it. No doubt, if the birds fled (and returned after the danger had passed) there was an intentionality to their actions. Jealous of our intelligence, we must find a way to explain that animals can predict natural disasters of many kinds long before humans detect their more obvious traits. Our technology gives us seconds, or minutes, of warning. Dogs, cats, and birds know well in advance. But we are the superior beings here.

One of the problems with consciousness is that we can never get outside our own. Other people act in ways similar to us, and describe similar mental states, so we assign them the same kind of consciousness we have. Animals, not using human language, also act in similar ways to us. We call it “instinct” and continue on to the truly important stuff. I have no idea if birds can detect infrasound; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they could. Without the ability to place it in the context of danger, however, I doubt they would take a thousand mile vacation just after their annual migration. We could learn a lot from our fellow creatures, if only we’d admit them to the conscious club and not the food club. And perhaps they might be able to explain to us why, despite all we know, religion never seems to go away.

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Ironic Icons

The Annals of Improbable Research every year offer up the Ignobel Prize for research that is bound to raise a condescending smile from the perspicacious. Ever practical Americans are given a bemused nod by the European for taking on the stranger side of science. This year’s Ignobel went to a group studying why banana peels are slippery, but a BBC Science and Environment report also mentioned a study of the phenomenon of pareidolia. For many years I have found the tendency to see faces where they don’t exist—signal amid the noise—to be closely tied with religious evolution. (The book that started me down this path was Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.) Indeed, the BBC reports the group was investigating the brains of those who see Jesus and other specific figures on toast and other venues of visual “white noise.” Not surprisingly, they found that the figure seen often relates to the religion of the viewer. Buddha gets around as much as Jesus does.

Ironically, many religions, particularly in the monotheistic mold, tend to find images problematic. According to the Bible, the true believer would not make or seek images at all. The great iconoclasm clash in late antique Christianity was, at least in part, a dispute over the role of images. Anyone who keeps an eye on the religious news knows that images of Mohammad are a particularly touchy subject. The Ignobel awards may not be the best place to look for explanations, but the University of Toronto team found that the function of finding faces is pre-human and is hardwired into our brains. Seeing Jesus or Buddha before Jesus or Buddha were born? Creatures with faces evolved the knack to identify faces.

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But why religious faces? The report on the BBC doesn’t go into that level of detail, but it is the salient point. Finding faces makes sense. Why we find religious faces is far more interesting. Guthrie suggests this might be the origin of religion itself—first we see the faces and then we give them names. We see what we expect to see. And maybe the religious tend to expect an epiphany more readily than the non-religious. The non-religious less seldom report seeing such faces. Indeed, the word pareidolia is still generally eschewed since it admits of one of those things we find somewhat embarrassing about being human. And yet it happens to us all. The face staring back at you from your morning toast may not be Jesus, but chances are that face will be religious.

What I Mean

It might seem, in this world of constant misunderstanding, that we might get along better were it not for the Tower of Babel. I mean, we call it a language barrier, right? So why are some people upset about the extinction of languages? Rebecca Morelle writes of how economic success may be behind language extinction in an article on the BBC science and environment page. There are some—many entrepreneurs—who see no cause for mourning. I have to wonder, though. I cut my academic teeth studying dead languages. Koine Greek and “Classical” Hebrew are no longer regularly spoken, and really haven’t been for centuries. Then I moved on to rediscovered languages: Ugaritic, Akkadian, Epigraphic South Arabian, each sounding more exotic than the last. Would world commerce exist if we were all hampered with Sumerian? We got on fine without the wisdom of the past—why should we even care?

I see politicians, mostly male, arguing in the “most advanced” government in the world, that women shouldn’t be given the full benefits of health care because they misunderstand the Bible. It is easily done. As I told my many students of biblical Hebrew over the years, language is not just words. Languages are ways of thinking. No translation is truly perfect. If you want to understand the Bible, you must do it on its own terms: learn to conceptualize in Hebrew and Greek, then come back and tell me what you think. It is, however, much easier to let King James do the talking. A man’s man. Just don’t ask what he did after hours, right Robert Carr? Something seems to have gotten lost in translation.

Languages are more than just ways of expressing ideas. They are the basis of cultures. When languages die off, cultures soon follow. Do you suppose that everyone on Papua New Guinea goes to work wearing a tie? Just give it some time. We call it progress, and it is inevitable. It has happened even closer to home, for those bound to the States like me. It used to be that academics had a language that didn’t necessarily included economics. The rarified domiciles of words like trenchant and salient and boustrophedon soon became superannuated. What are you trying to sell here? Dictionaries? As business marches unstoppably ahead, consuming all in its path, our lesser languages quietly die. With those languages ideas also pass away. With each demise, the world becomes a poorer place. Maybe it’s time to start building a tower.

Confusion_of_Tongues

Religion Fiction

Children brought up in a religious environment, according to a recent BBC story, are more prone to believe in fictional characters. The story, based on research from my alma mater, Boston University, suggests that if children are taught to believe miraculous stories at a young age, they will more likely believe that fictional figures are based in reality too. Undoubtedly this will be seen as yet another brick in Montresor’s wall by those who can find no good in religion. The reasoning will go something like this: believing in no religion is the “neutral” position. If we raise children in a religious context, we are inclining them toward a fictional belief system and making them less likely to reason their way out of it. Therefore, we should raise children secular.

Even in the BBC story there are dissenting voices. Perhaps children who learn about Jesus find Thor a more compelling character. Perhaps they are open to possibilities that logic shuts out. Our brains have two hemispheres for a reason. I often wonder whether it is possible to be fully human while ignoring about half of what evolution gave us to work with. Logic tells me that religious belief serves a survival function. And my creative side still appreciates the possibilities that my Manhattan brain is forced to shut down every day when I punch the clock. If there’s nothing more than work, perhaps believing in fiction serves a valuable function after all. But I suspect this is playing right into the rationalists’ hand. Pass me another brick, will you, Fortunato?

The jury, however, is still out on the nature of reality. Even for materialists. Gods of the gaps tend not to survive very well. The question is actually much larger than that. We don’t know the nature of ultimate reality. We’re not even sure what reality is yet. Can a parent who believes in God, after the experience of growing to maturity in a heartless universe, be blamed for teaching their children the same? No humane parent raises their child purposefully teaching them falsehoods. Yes, some children are damaged by religious upbringings. Some are damaged by materialist upbringings as well. What seems to have shifted, in my humble opinion, is the popular perceptions of religion. What used to be understood as the foundation of a civil society is now challenged as a harmful fantasy that encourages children to grow up into terrorists or non-functioning adults. The belief that we can raise children with no biases, however, is clearly fiction. Until we have the full truth, there should be room for both Gilligan and the Professor on this island. But then again, I was raised to believe in the divine world, so what do I know?

Fact or fiction?

Fact or fiction?